Razing the Babri mosque was an assault on the secular promise of the Constitution — the pledge that none are children of a lesser god.
A generation has passed since the day a medieval mosque was pulled down by triumphalist crowds in a dusty nondescript town of Uttar Pradesh 23 years ago. This traumatic moment altered the course of India’s contemporary history, marking a belligerent victory of the politics of hatred and division in the ongoing struggle by Hindu nationalists against the secular idea of India.
But every second Indian alive today was not even born in that defining harrowing moment. In this post-Ayodhya generation, I vest both my fears and hopes for a compassionate and inclusive India of the future.
This battle — for the soul of India — did not begin with the movement in the 1980s to build a grand Ram temple where Mughal emperor Babar had constructed a mosque. It did not end with the frenzied razing of the mosque on December 6, 1992, and the overnight building of a makeshift temple at that site. This fierce continuing contestation for India’s secularism, however, did peak with the Ayodhya movement.
During India’s struggle for freedom, the central conviction embodied in Gandhi’s leadership was that India belonged equally to people of every faith. However, Hindu nationalists were bitterly pitted against this idea, and therefore chose to fight not British colonialists but the secular idea of India. More than a million lives were lost in the religious riots that accompanied Partition. However, the felling of the Mahatma by Hindu nationalists in 1948 resulted in nationwide revulsion against communal ideologies of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. For the generation that followed, the secular character of India’s Constitution seemed secured and settled. But the degeneration of the Congress into authoritarianism and corruption fuelled a new mass movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s, to which members of the RSS were also admitted. With this began the upward turn in their fortunes.
Emerging from political shadows, the RSS searched for a fresh symbol to recruit a new generation to its majoritarian convictions. They found a powerful emblem in a low-key, long-festering dispute around the mosque built by Babar in 1528. Tulsidas, who wrote the Ramcharitmanas in 1574 in Ayodhya, never mentioned that a mosque had been built at Lord Rama’s birthplace. But Hindu nationalists now claimed that a temple, commemorating the place where Rama was born, was demolished to build the Babri Mosque. In 1949, statues of Rama were smuggled into the mosque, abetted by complicit state officials. Prayers by Muslims were halted, but Hindus continued to worship at the mosque.
LK Advani, leader of the BJP, which had shrunk to a small rump of two MPs in Parliament in the 1980s, masterfully resurrected this dispute and transformed it into a muscular national movement. Muslim leaders offered to build the Rama temple just adjacent to the Babri Mosque. But Hindu nationalists insisted that Rama was born at the precise site that lay below the central dome of the mosque, therefore only the removal of the mosque could satisfy what they claimed was a majority Hindu sentiment.
Advani commenced his tumultuous rath yatra from the emotive Somnath Temple, where indisputably a temple had been razed to build a mosque. I was a district officer in those turbulent years, and watched with mounting dismay as Advani’s rath advanced, and processions with consecrated bricks marched aggressively across India. Within a few months, religious hatred poisoned social relations everywhere, often erupting into hate violence. This climaxed when, cheered by leaders of the BJP, feverish crowds razed the mosque in 1992, leaving the Muslim community stunned, humiliated and frightened.
For Indians not born in those years, the full significance of that moment is often lost. What the marauders assaulted was not a crumbling mosque but the secular promise of the Constitution — the pledge that this would be a country in which none are children of a lesser god. Disputes, if any, would be dealt by an equal and fair application of law to all persons. Instead, in the Ayodhya movement, Muslims were compelled to submit to what was claimed to be a majoritarian sentiment, in defiance of law (although incidentally, a large mass of Hindus were deeply anguished by the violent destruction of a place of worship). The political leaders, held culpable by the judicial commission for planning, instigating, encouraging and cheering the criminal demolition, were never punished, and instead reaped massive political harvests.
The story of the battle for the future of India did not end with the destruction of the mosque. In its trail followed many cases of attacks, rapes and arson on people for the crime of their faith. The resistance from the Centre-Left was weak-kneed and apologetic, and anti-secular politics only gained strength. The movements of resistance to the idea of a secular India continue to reinvent themselves, adopting a variety of symbols for recreating the separate, subordinate and hated ‘other’. These symbols range from the eating of beef, love jihad and religious conversions; the claim that India lived under 1,200 years of slavery, continuing the same narrative of Muslim rulers being oppressive tyrants and foreigners; and gratuitous advice to dissenting Muslims to ‘go to Pakistan’, to impassioned debates in Parliament about the inclusion of the word ‘secular’ in India’s Constitution.
The first generation of Indians of free India were predominantly under the sway of the inclusive and humanist ideas of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru and Maulana Azad. The second generation, disillusioned by the cynical decay of those who claimed to carry these ideas in formal politics, joined hands with Hindu nationalists to oppose their authoritarianism and venal corruption. A third generation was swept into a tempestuous political movement of engineered division and social hatred, symbolised by the mass movement to destroy the mosque in Ayodhya. A fourth generation, more than half of all Indians below the age of 25 today, must now choose the India of their future.
Harsh Mander is convener, Aman Biradari
The views expressed are personal